Leaving a beloved pet home while you travel can be a source of stress for many people. It can also be a very stressful experience for the pet. In the post Jessica Dwyer Bartlett, a professional pet sitter and cat behavior consultant, adds her insights on setting your cat and your pet sitter up for success.
Pet Sitter vs Giant Bowl of Food
Because cats generally have all their needs met in the home, it can seem easy to just set them up with enough food for the weekend and go. However, doing this can have safety and well-being implications.
Health and Safety
Signs of illness may not become apparent until a cat is in crisis. Your cat may appear healthy when you leave them but life-threatening conditions can develop in a very short period of time. Bartlett emphasizes the importance of hiring a professional: “They have systems in place for emergencies such as they are unable to make it to the house, or the pet or house has an emergency such as the pet is ill or hurt, or the house pipes freeze. They also have liability insurance that covers both the pet or house if something happens with either.”
Most cats thrive on routine. Changes in eating schedule, play time, and social interactions can cause stress, which can then cause physical or behavioral problems. A cat sitter can maintain at least some of your cat’s normal routine, provide enrichment, and help your cat cope with the time without you.
Litter Box Hygiene
No one wants to come home to a soiled carpet. Whether because of the change of routine or a lack of litter box cleaning, some cats are more likely to eliminate outside the box when left alone. You wouldn’t want to use a toilet that hasn’t been flushed and your cat prefers a scooped box. While some people try to solve this with a self-cleaning litter box, Bartlett shares that “the litter box leaves lots of clues to a cat’s health. That’s why manually scooping is preferred.” (Many cats don’t like automatic boxes either).
Preparing Your Sitter
Don’t just leave a note and disappear! Good planning makes for a good experience for your cat and your sitter.
Meet and Greet
Set up a time for a new potential sitter to come over and meet your cat, as well as get familiar with the house. As well as showing them where everything is, you can make sure your cat is comfortable with them.
- Demonstrate how your cat likes to play
- Show them the best spots for petting, and the ones to avoid
- Discuss house “rules” for what your cat is allowed to do (Ex: It’s okay to sit on the counter with you while you cook). Share your cat’s personal “rules” too. (Ex: no petting while on the cat tree).
- Let your sitter see your cat as their normal self so they can identify changes and detail other “normal” for your cat, such as litter box habits
Discuss clear expectations for how much time the sitter will spend at your home, what they will and won’t do, and any other tasks you’d like them to do while they are there. Give the sitter the chance to say no. It’s better for everyone for each of you to find someone who is a better fit.
- How often and for how long will the sitter come to the house? (Be prepared to pay more if you want more.)
- What parts of your cat’s routine do you expect them to maintain? (Litter box maintenance, feeding, and playing should all be part of the plan.)
- Do you have any other rules/expectations for while they are in your house? (Staying out of certain areas, not bringing guests, etc.)
Be kind to your pet sitter when discussing expectations! They likely have other commitments and their own boundaries for how they do their job.
How will you communicate with your sitter and they with you? What about if something goes wrong and your sitter needs additional help?
- How and how often will your sitter check in with you?
- What is the plan if your cat needs vet care while you are away?
- Who can your sitter go to if they can’t immediately reach you during an emergency?
- Do you have any technology in your home that lets you monitor your pet sitter remotely (smart doorbells, cameras, etc)? Please make your sitter aware of these things!
Additional Steps For Success
It never hurts to be over prepared so there are things you can do, both well in advance and as you get ready to leave, to help your cat be their best self while you are gone.
The best sitters book up fast, especially around holidays! Schedule as soon as you think you might need someone. If your cat is sensitive or has special needs, form relationships with a few trusted people, so you have options in case one is busy.
Extra Pre-Trip Meetings
Bartlett recommends scheduling extra meetings to build the bond between a shy cat and sitter. “When cats are shy it’s best that the cat sitter builds trust by letting the cat come to them. Allowing the cat sitter to sit on the couch for 30 minutes helps that process for the current trip and future trips.” Pay your sitter for their time; it’s an investment in easier travel in the future!
Train Ahead of Time
Depending on your cat’s unique personality and needs, you can prepare them for a cat sitter with some important skills:
- Door Behavior: Teach your cat to go to and wait on a particular spot when the front door opens to prevent running out of the door. Alternatively, have your sitter use a door with a backup space, such as a garage, if you have a door darter.
- Polite Greetings and Confidence Around People: Show your cat that new people come with toys and treats to build positive associations. Facilitate polite introductions by having guests wait for your cat to approach rather than going towards them. If your cat struggles with new people, teach them ahead of time that touching their nose to an outstretched finger will be rewarded with a treat.
- Safe Zones: Cats that may have conflict with other pets should be separated when you aren’t around to supervise. Help your cat get comfortable staying in a “safe zone” within your home well ahead of leaving them. This can also be important if your cat’s behavior necessitates your cat sitter being careful as they enter, exit, or move around your home.
Before leaving, put out extra activities for your cat to enjoy during the periods between sitter visits. Prepare things for your cat sitter to switch in during their visits, such as new boxes with treats inside, food puzzles, and small toys to swap.
Extra Litter Box
Some cats become more cautious or decrease their activity while their people are away. This may mean they are less inclined to go to where their litter box is. An extra box, provided in the area they are likely to hide in, can help minimize the risk of elimination outside the box.
Enjoy Your Vacation!
With a little planning, you can relax and enjoy your time away from home, knowing that your cat is safe and happy. Have fun!
About Jessica Dwyer Bartlett
Jessica (she/her) started Whiskers At Home, a cat-only pet sitting business, in 2009. WAH currently has 11 Fear Free Certified employees supporting over 400 cat clients. She served on the board of the National Association of Professional Pet Sitters from 2010-2013 and won their business of the year award in 2015. In 2021, she launched Cat Lovers’ Academy to provide cat behavioral coaching. Learn more at the links above!
If your cat has a behavior problem that you need help solving, consider scheduling a private behavior consultation.